Restoration projects seek to fight “tragic” decline in Gulf of Mexico oyster population

Published on
November 16, 2018

Last week, the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources officially moved to cancel the state’s wild oyster season, which would have run from November through April.

Exploratory dives at oyster harvesting grounds had revealed a continued steep decline in the number of oysters in the state’s waters. Last year’s season was curtailed after fishermen harvested just 136 110-pound sacks of oysters, down from 7,000 sacks in 2013, according to the Associated Press.

Scott Bannon, director of the Marine Resources Division of the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, said the findings revealed the apparent collapse of the region's oyster ecology.

"It's tragic, to be honest," Bannon told AL.com.

Numerous factors have dealt blows not just to Alabama’s oyster grounds, but those of the entire Gulf of Mexico. The Deepwater Horizon oil spill, hurricanes, disease, and changes in freshwater flows to Gulf rivers and streams have collectively damaged the fishery to the point where up to 85 percent of the gulf’s original oyster reefs no longer remain intact.

According to a new report by The Nature Conservancy, “Oyster Restoration in the Gulf of Mexico,” this dramatic decline has damaged the stability and productivity of the Gulf’s estuaries and harmed coastal economies.

Seth Blitch, the director of coastal and marine conservation in Louisiana for The Nature Conservancy, told SeafoodSource the oyster habitat and the oyster fishery “is not in a particularly good place right now,” which could spell bigger problems for the region.

“Oysters, to me, are a great proxy to a lot of things,” he said. “If oysters are doing well, that’s a good indication of good water quality and of the health entire near-shore estuarine system. When oysters start to fail, that’s good indication there are larger issues at play.”

It can also mean trouble for humans, on many fronts, Blitch said. Beside hurting oystermen, a decline in oyster habitat has also been linked to a decline in crab, shrimp, and fish populations, damaging the larger fishing economy. In addition, oyster reefs act to reflect or abate wave force, serving as vital protection to shoreline communities during storms, and they help to slow rates of erosion and accumulation of sediment, Blitch said.

“In a lot of places where reefs have been lost, that has been a big contributing factor to coastal erosion,” he said.

Making matters more complicated, oyster reefs are difficult to restore.

“Disease and predation become really big problem when stocks get low,” Blitch said.

However, the new report by The Nature Conservancy claims the Gulf currently faces a unique opportunity, as a legal settlement with BP over the Deepwater Horizon spill – which may have killed as many as 8.3 billion oysters, according to NOAA – included around USD 160 million (EUR 141.5 million) in Natural Resource Damage Assessment funding for oyster restoration.

“It is unlikely that there will ever again be so much money available for the express purpose of restoring oysters in the Gulf of Mexico,” the report said. “Planning for the expenditure of these funds is critical to the success of oyster restoration.”

The purpose of the report, Blitch said, is to provide a base of information and planning for future restoration efforts, which he insisted must be taken on as joint partnerships between conservation groups and the fishing industry.

“Working together on a shared set of goals, we all might not get everything we want, but we will all get more,” he said. “It’s incumbent on us to work together. In particular, I think it’s paramount for folks in wild-catch oyster harvesting and oyster aquaculture to be involved, because they’re on the water every day and they know the most about natural patterns and life cycles, and they have as big a stake as anyone in the outcome.”

Also announced on 14 November, The Nature Conservancy is taking on two oyster reef restoration projects, both in Texas. Pre-construction begins this month on a 60-acre reef in Copano Bay. The group will oversee the USD 5 million (EUR 4.4 million) project, which construct a reef that will be partially open for commercial fishing, with a portion designated a marine sanctuary and protected from fishing. Once the reef is completed this winter, it will be populated with oyster spat and closed through 2021 to allow the oysters to colonize the reef and reach marketable size. 

A second, 50-acre project in Galveston Bay, which The Nature Conservancy will undertake in partnership with the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, Texas Parks and Wildlife, and the Galveston Bay Foundation. will attempt to achieve a similar outcome.

Raz Halili, the general manager of Dickinson, Texas-based Prestige Oysters, which has significant operations in Galveston Bay and throughout the Gulf of Mexico, told SeafoodSource he’s a supporter of the projects.

“We’re all for it,” he said. “I think it’s a great thing that they’re putting this money towards these projects. It’s great to see it spent to benefit the overall health of the Texas coast.”

Gulf oystermen have faced “serious challenges” for the past several years, with Hurricane Harvey topping the list, Halili said. Hurricane Michael also had a devastating impact, with oyster farmers in Florida reported losing between 60 and 90 percent of their crop, according to NBC News. In addition, concrete diversions built in Louisiana and Georgia, intended to control freshwater heading into the Gulf, have “killed off” many oyster grounds in those states by covering them in sediment, Halili said.

“Mother Nature plays such a big role in our industry, and it’s impossible to stop what she’s going to do,” Halili said. “But regulatory decisions have sometimes not been the best for us. We hope the state of Louisiana and other state governments step up with their commitment in bringing back lost oyster grounds, and we believe they’re going to do that. This region has such a strong history in seafood, we believe they’re going to make the commitment to do that.”

Earlier this year, Texas upped its enforcement efforts to fight poaching of small-sized oysters, and that has had a major benefit, Halili said.

Halili said he welcomes The Nature Conservancy’s efforts to rebuild oyster reefs in Texas as what he hopes is a larger effort to bring oyster populations and habitat back to full health in the Gulf.

“To get some investment is comforting to say the least,” he said.

The Nature Conservancy’s Blitch said he welcomes corporate partners into the discussion on how best to accomplish restoration of the Gulf oyster fishery, which was worth USD 220 million (EUR 194.5 million) last year.

“We’re confident we can restore oysters as a habitat, but getting it done won’t be easy,” Blitch said. “What is needed is a ‘better-together’ philosophy.

“I think there’s a lot of misconceptions about people in conservations and also in commercial fishing. The best way to disabuse people of those conceptions is to work together, to talk about problems and solutions and work for the betterment of the fishery,” he said. “Who doesn’t want more oysters?”

Photo courtesy of The Nature Conservancy/Erica Nortemann

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